Brief liberation from body-image jail

There they are, a parade of imperfect human bodies, passing by.

Sitting outside a coffee shop, I scan my loose, frayed T-shirt and stretched out sweatpants, noting my extra bulges. I should have made the effort to put on a little lip gloss. Or at least gotten washed. I’m going through an anti-magazine-image phase, something that’s routinely happened to me since long, long ago in a distant hippie galaxy. I look up again to watch the shoppers, in their differing proportions and styles, no two looking alike. Then I scrutinize myself once again.

I’ve made a sobering discovery: People just don’t look so good. Yet we’re expected to.

Toddler beauty pageants. Miracle weight loss foods. Size zero for teens (zero?!?). Who can measure up, I ask myself, as I lovingly place the last cupcake crumb into my mouth? To complicate things, our society’s czars (health-care providers) issue stern warnings about fitness, leading us all to enjoy one of America’s favorite pastimes – inadequacy. It all sounds like a sci-fi movie. I never liked sci-fi.

You may be wondering why I’ve been thinking of this. It started with the recent marches in Maine in which women – and some men – went topless to prove something, although I think we’re all trying to figure out exactly what that was. Personally, I don’t care what people wear – if anything – in public, as long as they don’t gripe about being stared at, although I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’d be happy if young people would stop wearing jeans that show the top three inches of their butts.

Once, in Spain, I considered going nude on a beach, where it’s simply part of the culture and no one cares what you look like. But at the last minute, I couldn’t go through with it, and missed my big chance to freely shed my self-conscious body image along with my clothing. Now my husband will have to take me to Spain again so I can try once more to free my inner chicken. Small price for him to pay for a good laugh, I say.

Internet sources deal with body image like motherly advice (“Love yourself for who you are, dear.”) Oh, please. In the last several years, the only time I’ve really appreciated my body’s “look” was at the dentist. Lying down, I spotted a tiny overhead mirror next to the lights. The jiggley neck skin? Totally vanished. Now when I want to look young and vibrant, I make an appointment. Thank God for dental insurance. Between visits, I make it a point to never look in the mirror with my glasses on in full light. Ever.

Maybe the topless marchers are onto something. I struggle with this – rationalizing, philosophizing, jumping for joy over a single pound lost or a good haircut, and questioning my values. I can’t shake what the media tells us any more than I can ignore the wiser part of me.

But sometimes, there is a moment of clarity, and recently, I had good reason to pay attention to my appearance.

It was a Saturday morning, and I was one of thousands in a polite but chaotic crowd of people scurrying about. We were outdoors, it was hot, and it didn’t take long before I was in something of a disheveled state, despite my careful planning. My humidity-frizzed hair looked like a 1950s bubble-cut on drugs. My linen dress had given way to a forest of wrinkles. The freshly showered feeling from earlier had morphed into something reminiscent of an old broom closet.

Suddenly, the college band started playing that familiar heart-clutching music. I felt the building excitement in and all around me, and nothing else mattered to anyone. Not hair, not size, not fashion.

Wiping away the messy stream of tears and mascara smearing my cheeks where the painstakingly dabbed blush had been, I caught the proud face of my youngest, as he and his classmates, in cap and gown, processed past the most loving crowd of imperfectly beautiful human bodies I have ever seen. And in that moment, we all looked pretty good.

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